I'm also excited to announce that I'll be posting regular blog posts for the science fiction magazine Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores. Cosmic Roots is a new magazine featuring science fiction, fantasy, and other short stories. I'll be contributing as often as I can on fact-based articles about science and society. I'll be sure to link my posts here as well, as many of the posts will be open access and free. Interviews and other types of articles I may write will be for subscribers to the magazine and if you like reading science fiction short stories it is worth getting a subscription.
Okay, so what's been happening in the world of science?
There has been considerable attention on the environment lately, which should come as no surprise given how important our climate is to our health and sustainability as a country and planet. Last month, researchers in Germany published a comprehensive report on oceanic oxygen content and reported a 2% global decline in oxygen levels in the ocean since at least the 1960's. The levels of decline were variable by region and depth and a handful of areas even saw an increase in oxygen content. This type of comprehensive assessment is very important given the link between ocean oxygen levels and aquamarine health. If oxygen levels in the deeper parts of the ocean continue to drop as projected, the reduction in diversity of life and resources provided by our oceans will greatly impact society.
For example, water oxygenation is important for plant life and coral reef health in coastal environments. Another recent study found that seagrasses in coastal regions can reduce pathogenic bacterial populations in coastal ocean waters that are harmful to humans and sea creatures, alike. This is important evidence that healthy seagrass meadows sustain a ecosystem that has direct benefit to human health along the coasts (where a majority of humans live) and this is linked to the oxygen levels in the oceans. This balance will be vital to study and protect.
Physics has also had some remarkable discoveries and advances. Of course, the 'big one' was the discovery of seven planets that orbit the dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. TRAPPIST-1 is roughly 40 light-years away, so we won't be heading over to check it out anytime soon. However, each planet is close enough to the dwarf star that it could be warm enough for liquid water, and perhaps even life. This is a monumental discovery, as there are now known and nearby solar systems that could be hospitable for humans or other forms of life. Identifying this system gives researchers the opportunity to study how solar systems like ours formed, the requirements for liquid water on planets orbiting stars that are different from the Sun, and if these planets have any atmospheric conditions that support life...perhaps even if they contain oxygen. It's time to fire up the generation ships.
On the other end of the physics spectrum, researchers in Vienna have provided the first proof-of-principle experiment that confirms important aspects of quantum entanglement. Okay, what the hell does that even mean? In a nutshell, quantum entanglement suggests that some information can indeed travel faster than the speed of light. If two particles of matter become 'entangled', no matter how far apart you separate them, whether it's across a town, or galaxy, or the universe...what you do to one particle will automatically influence what happens to the other particle, regardless of the distance between them. Is your mind blown yet?
It's a lot to take in and I'm admittedly not the best source of information on this. The Atlantic has a very good article about what entanglement really is, the importance of this breakthrough, and Einstein's thoughts on 'spooky action at a distance', as he called it. I suggest checking it out as it explains everything very well.
Switching gears over to biology, I found some interesting articles I thought were worth bringing to your attention. DNA Fountain was just announced, the most current platform available to store data and information in strands of DNA. DNA Fountain was able to perfectly record, code, and decode movies and digital files (up to 2.5 Mb) in strands of physical DNA. While the sizes of these files isn't really impressive, the scalability of the DNA Fountain is the innovation being reported, with a maximum potential of up to 680 petabytes of information stored using this method. To put that into perspective, some of the largest, commercially-available external hard drives can store about10 terabytes of data....so a single gram of DNA could theoretically store 680,000x more information. Cost efficiency is a concern at this point, as is error-free recording, but the future of information storage may very well be using our own genetic code. Very cool.
Speaking of DNA, it's long been known that as we grow older we accumulate more DNA damage and mutations in our cells. DNA mutations can be caused by environmental exposures (such as UV radiation or from carcinogens found in cigarettes), errors in DNA replication when a cell divides, or even the stochastic process where some DNA nucleotides will spontaneously turn into another (this is called DNA deamination). In my opinion, the accumulation of DNA mutations can lead to predisposition to many diseases, but that can be hard to accurately assess. In fact, there is still an ongoing debate as to how much age-related mutations contribute to the onset of diseases, like cancer. The latest paper by Bert Vogelstein at John Hopkins attempts to address that issue in cancer. His laboratory is reporting that of the three ways DNA mutations can lead to cancer (1. through inheritance; 2. via environmental exposure; or 3. errors in DNA replication during cell division), random errors in DNA replication explain nearly two-thirds of all cancers.
This is a very provocative paper and assuredly cancer researchers are going to go to battle over this data. If correct, it means that a majority of cancers are caused at random and may not be preventable...some researchers are simply calling it bad luck. This has implications for prevention and therapy and it does agree with the history of studying cancer, in that cancer is now seen as a complex variety of conditions dependent upon the type of mutation driving the cellular growth and the tissue of origin. This finding also means a lot of work is going to be needed in the future to make cancer prevention and treatment more personalized so that those who develop cancer survive and with as few side effects as possible.
The last paper I'll highlight is a study of predicted life-expectancy in 35 industrialized countries around the globe. No surprise, the United States is projected to have one of the lowest gains in life expectancy in the developed world. With some of the failures in the Affordable Care Act and the new Administration's growing War on Science, particulary the idiotic ambitions to drastically reduce the science and health research capacity in the United States, this issue will undoubtedly become more important and apparent in the coming years. The authors of the report put it best and I'll just place their comments right here:
"Notable among poor-performing countries is the USA, whose life expectancy at birth is already lower than most other high-income countries, and is projected to fall further behind such that its 2030 life expectancy at birth might be similar to the Czech Republic for men, and Croatia and Mexico for women. The USA has the highest child and maternal mortality, homicide rate, and body-mass index of any high-income country, and was the first of high-income countries to experience a halt or
possibly reversal of increase in height in adulthood, which is associated with higher longevity. The USA is also the only country in the OECD without universal health coverage, and has the largest share of unmet health-care needs due to financial costs. Not only does the USA have high and rising health inequalities, but also life expectancy has stagnated or even declined in some population subgroups. Therefore, the poor recent and projected US performance is at least partly due to high
and inequitable mortality from chronic diseases and violence, and insufficient and inequitable health care."
But the best strategy is definitely to reduce federal research support for these important issues...blah!
-Apparently there is going to be a big dustup in the dinosaur world. Last week a study in Nature was published that called for an entire reorganization of the classification and naming of Dinosaurs. Hopefully the Brontosaurus returns! If any dinosaurs feel chumped by how things shake out, they can certainly phone a friend in Pluto.
-Early in human history, some of our ancestors interbred with Neanderthals and remnants of the Neanderthal genome are found in certain human populations. This month another study was published that provides evidence that genetic elements humans inherited from Neanderthals are functional and contribute to human phenotype variation (not all humans have Neanderthal ancestry!).
So there you have it. Until next time, enjoy Spring!